Notes from Ann: An Interview with Elizabeth McCracken


What’s the best reason I know to co-own a bookstore? It means I get to see my most beloved friends when they publish their books. Elizabeth McCracken is at the top of my list of people I’m always longing to see, so this is a double cause for celebration: first, the publication of her wonderful new novel, Bowlaway, and second, that she’s coming to Parnassus.

The big event happens on February 22, when we’ll be in conversation at the store. Here’s our warm-up. –Ann

Ann Patchett: There is so much going on in this novel, so many people, so many changing attitudes, so much time. I just wonder what the original idea was. Did you think, I really want to write a novel about candlepin bowling, or, I really want to write a multi-generational saga, or, I see this woman Bertha Truitt asleep in a snowy cemetery?

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of six books, including Thunderstruck & Other Stories (winner of the 2015 Story Prize), and also holds the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, Austin

Elizabeth McCracken: The first thing I knew was that I wanted to write across generations, something that felt like a genealogy — that was before I had even written a word. I went through my grandfather’s genealogies and I pulled out names; the names became the characters. And just before I started to write, I decided to put a bowling alley in it. I feel as though I always need a bit of weird material to wrap a novel around, or else I would just describe furniture and mustaches.

The opening, with Bertha in the cemetery, is one of the later additions. Nearly anything that reads as traditional plot came in towards the end (I think in the version you first read completely different people found her). I still don’t know how to write a novel with a clear idea of what happens ahead of time: I have to throw it on the page and see what kind of shape it makes and then make that shape clearer.

AP: Do you remember how we swooned over Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries and the way she used old photographs in the book? I feel like going through your grandfather’s genealogies is like that. Does The Stone Diaries still resonate with you? What are some of the multi-generational novels you love?

EM: I do still adore The Stone Diaries and recently pressed it upon a student, and I can certainly see its imprint on this book. I remember just having my mind blown by the pictures in the middle, in a can-you-do-that-oh-I-guess-only-one-person-can way. It’s such an odd multi-generational book. The Stone Diaries is one of those books I read because I saw a pre-publication review when I worked as a librarian, and so it came to me pretty free of expectations and so is particularly dear to me.

As for other multi-generational novels: well, Commonwealth, of course. A Hundred Years of Solitude. Middlesex, which I really love.

AP: The thing about interviewing your friends is that they are legally obligated to mention your books. Did you know that The Stone Diaries is published without the pictures now? When I read it again there were no pictures.

You do a brilliant job letting major characters like Bertha and Nahum abruptly appear, while other major characters, like Margaret and Joe Wear and LuEtta, abruptly drop out of the narrative, only to circle back again. You’re juggling so many people here, and I wonder how much of this is planned in advance.

EM: No pictures? That’s terrible! I can’t even imagine it without pictures.

It is remarkable what I didn’t plan in this book. These weren’t meant to be major characters in any way — they became major as I wrote. Margaret, for instance, was just mentioned in an aside, and then while I was writing up to the scene in which Nahum came back married to somebody, I suddenly thought, Well, I’ll make his wife that minor character. Joe, too, was just a guy who worked in the alleys and then suddenly he wasn’t. I’d also gotten his name wrong — he was Jack Wear in the first draft, and when I realized it should be Joe Wear he came much clearer. What it felt like: when I had the idea for the novel, it was like finding an enormous, very dirty painting in a junk shop. I could see the shape of the two figures in the middle of the canvas, and then I began to clean it, and then I could see the figures all around them, first the shapes, then faces, expressions, clothing, etc. The plot as I first conceived of it was just genealogy. I only saw things happening as I wrote.

AP: That’s fascinating about the names! Jack Wear is so different from Joe Wear, and Margaret has her moments of being Meg and Meggie. There are some of the best character names ever in this book, including my all time favorite, Cracker Graham.

Your powers of language have always been extraordinary — you’re in the Pantheon with Allan Gurganus — but the balance between the beauty of your sentences and the dingy confinement of the bowling alley is genius. Talk about you relationship to bowling alleys, to the arcane and regional candlepin bowling, and the burden place has for the people in this book. (Or, to put it another way, the burden place has on people.)

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Entertainment Weekly calls Bowlaway “an oddball masterpiece.”

EM: I was a childhood candlepin bowler — in elementary school I bowled two years on what was called a “league” but was really just a club, since we only competed amongst ourselves. I also joined a league in junior high school, but it petered out. In my early thirties I got serious for a couple of years about ten pin bowling, and had my own ball and bowling shoes. What I loved about it is that it’s a solitary sport that one would never pursue alone. I know that gym teachers across America like to talk about how being on a team teaches you how to be a team player, but it doesn’t: it teaches you where you are in the hierarchy. I was short and chubby and sedentary as a child. I was always going to let the team down. But when you bowl you can just bowl against your own last score, and you can still talk to your pals while you do it.

OK, this is an answer largely about bowling!

I don’t know why I have written two novels now in which a family business is a burden on the next generations. (It’s also true in Niagara Falls All Over Again.) I did not grow up in a family business. Or maybe I did, academia, and it appears I’ve gone into it. Anyhow, I liked the idea of a bowling alley, which is both very democratic — anybody can come in, no matter how good they are at the sport, and bowl next to a terrible bowler or a great one — and also extremely focused: you have to be interested in bowling. I’m also interested in those old-timey things that still exist, always.

AP: You were not too far past your candlepin bowling years when we first met. We were both fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center. You were in your early twenties and I was in my middle twenties and we spent the winter together in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There was no internet, no money, no people around. You now have a wonderful family, a huge job, and big presence in the literary world as a writer, teacher, mentor, and citizen (by which I mean you judge prizes and write people letters and are an all-around good egg). What’s the relationship between what writing was like for you when we met and what it’s like for you now?

EM: I think perhaps everything and nothing? In some ways the biggest difference is that I now don’t show a book to anyone, anyone at all, until I’m finished with a draft. I probably was sliding pages of books under your literal door that year in Provincetown, and your metaphorical door once you weren’t right around the corner. I think life is now loud enough that I need the quiet of being alone with the book. I don’t even tell anybody what I’m writing. I got this from Edward [Elizabeth’s spouse, writer Edward Carey], who did it with his Iremonger trilogy. I can’t imagine doing it otherwise now, and I think it also applies pressure on me to finish a draft.

I often tell my students that I feel sorry that they will never know what it feels like to have zero possibilities for distraction when they pull all-nighters. When we were in Provincetown, I often wrote very late into the night, having procrastinated all day, and everyone in the town was asleep, I didn’t have a television (but even if I did, there would have been nothing to watch), no email, only overnight radio, which I often listened to as I wrote. It was like being sealed in a little capsule headed for the moon, or the morning. These days I seal myself in my campus office with zero internet access and no smartphone, which is as close as I can get to the same thing.

AP: Last, best question: what do independent bookstores mean to you?

EM: When I think about it, I was really raised by independent bookstores. My brother, Harry, and I would take the bus into Harvard Square, where there were so many, though  my favorites was Wordsworth, which had these benches upon which a child could sit and read all day. We also hit the Harvard Bookstore, and the Million Year Picnic, a fantastic comic book store, both of which are still there.

And one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me is that in grad school I won $500 worth of books from Prairie Lights in Iowa City, which was an unfathomable amount in 1990, and I can still remember a lot of the books that Paul Ingram loaded into my arms: Friend of My Youth, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Deadwood, Paris Trout, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Geek Love. To read Geek Love for the first time!  I knew that if I just asked for the books I would love, he would find them for me. Independent bookstores have done a lot for me as a writer, too — I have depended on them all my writing life — but it’s my reading life that I think of instantly. (And I cannot wait to come back to Parnassus. I have always wanted to be friends with the proprietor of a bookstore.)

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Elizabeth McCracken presents Bowlaway
in conversation with Ann Patchett
Friday, February 22, 2019
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
This event is open to the public and free to attend!